Who’s the Boss? An Old Feminist’s Take on Banning Bossy

theguardian.comA long time ago, in a galaxy called my twenties, I used to shave my head. I shaved my head and wore overalls and Adidas high tops and rode the bus down to Washington DC to march around the mall with placards for things I believed in. Most of those things centered around women’s reproductive rights: Bush, stay out of Mine sort of stuff.  I am a daughter of Free to Be You and Me, beneficiary of nationwide educational policies meant to close the gender gap in math and science. I came of age post bra burning, post ERA, post Roe v. Wade; right at the tail end of Take Back the Night, smack in the middle of The Beauty Myth and Backlash.

It was a great time to be a feminist.

My marching days, my placard carrying trips, my Sister Suffragette bonding day trips down to DC are long over. Geography prevents me from traveling to Washington DC to lodge a protest on the sidewalk of the Capitol. Age, experience, and motherhood have all served to quell the flames of rage, to dampen the fires, though they will never go out completely. As with any passionate belief there are always embers waiting to be stirred, waiting to be poked and prodded and fanned back to life.  There is plenty that needs addressing, though we are solidly within the new millennium. Institutionalized inequality, salary inequity, and forever and always, the battlefield of reproductive rights. There is plenty still to fight for, to march for, to make your voice heard for.

I’m just not sure the Ban Bossy movement is up there.

I think I have a pretty good understand of the importance of words. I am a lexicon geek. I get off on semantics. I’m a terrible speller, a decent grammarian, but I salivate when I get to delve into the whys of word choice, the conduct of coding and other geeky linguistic loopholes. One of the highlights of my college studies was a class in which I conducted research on usage of the word ‘girl’ vs. that of ‘woman’. It was delicious (and if you really want to know, a lot of folks are subconsciously uncomfortable with the sexuality and power that comes with the word woman).


From way up here on my soapbox, it is not the concept of the Ban Bossy movement I find fault with. I’m not going to argue that it is a frivolous attempt at addressing a serious issue. I would instead argue that banning the word bossy is the wrong approach. The word itself is used, disparagingly, to describe both sexes.  I’m not sure where the idea that boys are never called bossy comes from because it’s simply not true. I hear it all the time, in playgrounds, in schoolyards, in the classroom, from my own mouth, directed at both girls and boys. Regardless of which sex is being labeled, it has a negative connotation. Trust me, if I attend a parent teacher conference and the teacher tells me my son is bossy, she’s not saying, “he’s got future leadership potential.” She is saying, “your kid is a pain in the ass who  never lets anyone else talk or make a decision.”

If marijuana is the gateway to heroin, then bossiness is, in parenting and teaching parlance, the gateway to bullying.

It is women who are using the word bossy to describe behavior they don’t like.  Mothers, mostly. Because to women, bossy is a negative thing. To women, telling other people what to do is a no-no; inclusion is encouraged at all costs, stepping on someone else’s words or ideas to get your voice heard is discouraged–in boys as well as girls.  It is not the word ‘bossy’ that’s the problem. It is how we as women, as mothers, as teachers, and yes, as leaders, are transferring our ideals and values onto our children. We are arguing in circles that what is perceived as competitiveness and stubbornness in boys is seen as bossy in girls. Women often view these traits as negative in both sexes, yet the implication is that boys seem to be able to shoulder the label and make it work while girls become discouraged and withdraw.

newmanchesterBanning a word is not enough to change our perceptions. What needs to change is how much valuation we place on certain roles in society. Until we imbue a 2nd grade teacher with as much value as a CEO, we are stuck. Until we value a stay at home mother as much as we do a working mother, or a working mother as much we do a stay at home mother, we are stuck. Until we value the unique perspective that that women can bring to a position rather than trying to fit their round bodies into the square holes that we’ve been told are the ones to be most envied, most valued, most sought after, then we are stuck. Until we value a leader than is inclusive rather than able to take charge, one that is bossy, well, then we are well and truly stuck.

As women, as mothers and even as feminists, we spend a lot of time focusing on fair, on taking turns, on taking others into consideration; yet these are the opposite traits to what we traditionally look for in a leader. Before we can begin to address any inequities of how we view these traits in our children, we need to figure out what it is we want.

Our ideas of leadership can change, the same way our ideas about girls and math and about girls and science have changed. But until they do, we need some bossy girls, and boys, out there leading the way.

If you are going to drown out others to make your voice heard, make your voice count. There are plenty of battles still to fight.

17 Comments Add yours

  1. NotAPunkRocker says:

    Well said, and I agree. While this is something worth discussing, I am more concerned about other issues that may effect me or future generations physically.


    1. dhonour says:

      I think small, grass roots movements are important. I just think this one has the possibility of going completely in the wrong direction. And again, until we redefine our idea of a ‘leader’, there’s no real point. But I’m with you, the reproductive stuff has always been a deal breaker for me.


  2. That was good! Although I think how we perceive leadership deserves some twerking, taking out the word bossy may not be such a good idea. We really don’t want passive or even passive aggressive leaders, we want bossy ones. That’s how leadership works. Rather then trying to change the entire nature of leadership, perhaps we need to be asking why those who don’t want to be bossy, don’t want to lead, are not being valued? If you are a sort of equalitarian, consensus like person, why should we push you into leadership, indeed, even change the language and the definition of leadership so as to accommodate you? It’s like there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Why is being the cook the only position we value?


    1. dhonour says:

      Exactly. Our ideas of ‘leadership’ seem to be based around ‘value’ which are based around monetary renumeration. That needs to change, and that’s far more important than whether someone is considered bossy or not.


  3. stephrogers says:

    I agree that women approach leadership differently and more collaboratively. That should not change. Our views on leadership need to change


    1. dhonour says:

      I think we need to re-evaluate what exactly it is we value. Why is it the person who makes the most money is automatically the ‘leader’? I think we also, as women (and especially as mothers) need to rethink our definitions of ‘bossy’ and what kind of behavior we expect/encourage/discourage in our children. Being competitive isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Stepping on other people to win is. But there is a fine line, sometimes, and it’s a hard one to tread.


  4. quite right, bossy does not imply leadership skills, bossy is a negative word. Leaders get the best out of their people using much cleverer means…they make people want to do what is required of them. To me, bossy just conjures up images of loud, domineering types and control freaks with no interpersonal skills…and these are sometimes male and sometimes female


    1. dhonour says:

      I guess because I’m a mom to boys and have a lot more dealings with boys, I was surprised to hear that people think boys are not called bossy. In my world, I hear it all the time. Hell, I’ve even called my own kids bossy. And it’s always negative. I don’t think it’s encouraged in either sex, that’s what the whole thing kind of took me by surprise.


  5. El Guapo says:

    Well said!
    Though it seems that if nothing else, the move to ban “bossy” has started a conversation about the meaning of words and how they’re applied.


    1. dhonour says:

      Yes, and I am a word nerd for sure. I personally think this one is a little off base. Bossy is a negative word, but I don’t think it’s negative when applied to girls and less so when applied to boys. And it IS applied to boys, frequently, which I think is what is throwing me off and making me balk at lending my support. Far more damaging in my eyes and ears is: “Stop (fill in the blank) like a girl.” Now that IS negative, and that should be stopped. And I hear women do it ALL the time to their sons, and sometimes even their daughters!


  6. I’ve been mulling this one over in my tiny brain for a while as it really bugs me, but I’ve had a hard time pinpointing why. I think it is because, like you, I’m a word nerd and this “banning a word” business bothers me. Bossy is, as you so perfectly point out, boy and girl behavior. Bossy is human behavior. Bossy exists in kids, friends ( and frenemies), siblings, co-workers, people on jury duty (mmm there’s a post) and in subway cars, even in the animal kingdom. Bossy behavior isn’t going away. Ever.

    So here’s the question—what is the proposed replacement for the (lowercase) b word? What vocabulary do you give a child to put a name to someone who is running roughshod over them without taking their feelings in to consideration—’cause that’s a mouthful. They still need to be able to identify unfairness/pushyness/pain-in-the-assness and call it out before they are old enough just to resort to “asshat” or its Anglo Saxon varieties. What have you come up with—or is bossy (when applied to both genders of all ages) not so unreasonable?

    Personally, I’d rather ban bossy behavior.


    1. dhonour says:

      I guess what really bugs me (and there are A LOT of things that bug me at the moment) is that the movement assumes that the word is only used for girls and that bossy behavior in boys is not only encouraged and applauded, but called something else entirely. Namely, leadership. As the mother of two boys, I can attest to the fact that this is simply not true. Are there words that are unfairly used to castigate females that have no male equivalent? Of course. Slut comes to mind. Secondly, (and she’s off….!) we need to shift the focus from leadership= power=who makes the most money to leadership=those that are actually spending time cultivating the generations that are up and coming. Imagine if that shift happened automatically, and teachers, social workers, parents, care takers, community leaders were given the same value weighted title of leader. Who fills most of those positions? Women. There’s so much more at stake than a word. Lastly, (really?? surely not!), imo, if we are going to focus on ‘banning’ anything, it should be phrases like “stop acting like a girl”, “you cry like a girl” etc. all of which imply that the negative is the female thereby automatically imbuing the opposite, the male, with the positive attribute. Phew. And, in closing, may I just say that I adore the word asshat and its gender neutrality and would love to come up with a list of Anglo Saxon varieties with you. Phew. Next up, The Hobby Lobby. Watch this space 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. And BOOM that’s why we love Dina! I hate, hate the “you ___ like a girl” expressions. You ranted so I don’t have to. Bless you.

    BTW asshat is in full rotation along with “Shut the front door!” as I try to potty train my mouth.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. kelseyjordangw says:

    You said everything I have felt/thought about the “bossy movement”, but in a better way than “Are you f’ing kidding me?!”


    1. dhonour says:

      Oh, trust me, “Are you f*cking kidding me?” pops up in my vocabulary many, many times throughout the day, including when thinking about this.


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